Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Haiti Trip, Day 6

9:40 p.m.

“Could be worse. Could be raining.” [Cue thunder, lightning, and downpour.]
-- Igor, Young Frankenstein

There’s a saying among Haiti missionaries: “What do you do when it rains in Haiti? You get wet.” That was our early morning today in a nutshell. It rained all night in Cayes, and was still raining as we got ready to head out for the hour’s drive to Maniche. There were seven of us in a pickup, so some were bound to get wet. We put on rain ponchos and put our heads down as we acted as weights for the last load of lumber to go up the mountain for the school desks. Our real concern wasn’t getting wet; it was getting the truck through the swollen rivers along the way, especially the large one right by the school. Our driver today, Shumi the interpreter, was a master of aquatic driving, and he was wise enough to ask a child to wade into the river so he could sound the depth. It was “only” up to the thighs of a 10-year-old, so the truck plunged in. Shumi made it through without any drama at all. Just another day in Haiti.

At the school, we finished up projects in preparation for coming home. Bruce and a few parents completed five more desks for the fourth- and fifth-grade classes, as well as stabilizing both the teeter-totter and the swing set. Both are in good shape for the near future, at least. Chris taught a little cultural geography this time, telling the fifth and sixth graders about our world in the States and Canada (Chris’ homeland) and showing them photos on his laptop. You’ll be happy to know the kids in Maniche have now seen Kauffman and Arrowhead Stadiums. Kathy taught about hand-washing and cholera prevention, telling the kids they need to be models for their families and friends to help keep the disease from spreading. And Vanessa taught the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders about fractions using time signatures in music as the example. It was a brilliant way to instill some math principles and have a great time in the process. The kids in Maniche don’t often listen to iPods (through battery-powered speakers, in this case). Vanessa had found a Celine Dion song, in French, with a strong ¾ beat, and you could hear kids singing it on the schoolyard after class. And I finished some school-picture “retakes” and tried to shoot all the activity in the classrooms and the construction site.

Once the school day was over, we all found ourselves looking for one more small task or organizational detail to manage, just to delay actually leaving. It’s hard to go once you spend a few days there and renew relationships with the teachers and students. This is a great manifestation of the truth that we really aren’t in a partner relationship with a school in Haiti. We’re partners with people who teach and learn at Maniche. The relationship isn’t about improving buildings, or building libraries, or eventually adding computers –- as important as those things are. Instead, the relationship is about helping families and educators work with God to transform the lives of these 161 students.

And we were given a wonderful exclamation point on that message as we left the school and drove back into Maniche proper. We stopped at two of the three schools where our graduates from last year’s sixth grade are now enrolled in the next step in their schooling. These are larger schools, with more resources and about 30 kids in each class (compared with the 15 or so in our classes). We had worried –- with good reason, in the past –- that our students might not be adequately prepared to make the move to the “town” schools and succeed. So we asked the headmasters at these schools how our students were doing. The answer: Just fine. They were keeping up and even excelling compared with the other students.

This is a microscopic victory. For this year, it means a grand total of six kids are moving on in their schooling. So what, in the bigger picture? This doesn’t change anything about the problems of Haiti. It doesn’t even make any visible changes in this tiny, remote mountain village. But for these six kids, at this moment in their lives, it makes all the difference. It helps them take another step in the process of becoming the new creations God intends, able to transform life for themselves, their families, and the children they will rear. Most of all, it takes these kids seriously; and, in so doing, it takes Jesus Christ seriously. As you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do it to me (Matthew 25:40).

Au revoir –- until next year.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Haiti Trip, Day 5

Nov. 15, 2010, 8:36 p.m.

What sticks with me today are images more than narratives –- snapshots, literally, of lives we’re only beginning to know.

(By the way, as I write this, an impromptu choir has formed in the room of the innkeeper, Franchette. She had hernia surgery last week, a couple of days before we arrived; and she’s been in bed most of the time since we’ve been here. Now, a group of friends, probably from her church nearby, is gathered around her, praying and singing, in Kreyol, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Even if it weren’t a church group, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary in this country to hear people singing hymns in the hallway of a public building.)

I spent the day at Maniche with Vanessa taking photos of the students and interviewing them, through an interpreter, about some of the basics of their young lives: name, age, number of brothers and sisters, whether they live with their parents or someone else, how long it takes them to walk to school, and whether they’d come into the community recently, fallout from the January earthquake. We talked with all 147 kids at the school today (the enrollment is 161). Here are a few snapshots:
• Fabien Exantus is in the earliest preschool class. He’s 4 years old, and his grandmother brought him to Maniche from Port-au-Prince after his mom was killed in the earthquake. (We didn’t hear anything about his father.)
• Miguel Prospira is in 2nd grade. He’s 12 years old and lives with his sister after his parents died in the earthquake. He walks two hours each way to go to school.
• Vilant Adme is 16 years old and in 5th grade. He lives with his parents, who struggle to provide not only for him but for his six brothers, and four sisters, too. He walks an hour each way to go to school.

Of course, there are also many kids we talked with today whose lives are more “normal” than these three. But even “normal” is getting harder than it had been in Haiti. Kathy, the physician, is noticing signs of malnutrition more frequently than we saw last year, particularly in the orange tint to the children’s black hair, a sign of protein malnutrition. And this is despite the fact that we serve a high-protein lunch each day at our school. The supply of food in the country following the earthquake is even lower than usual, which drives the prices up and out of range for many of our school’s families.

So, part of our mission here is tending to the physical well-being of the kids. And toward that end, Kathy went out with Colbert networking with local health-care providers to arrange care for the kids at our school, charged to us. She found an office of the National Health Service about a mile away from the school (an easy walk for the kids here), which will serve as a referral facility for the “nurse” at our school. This is a good moment to remember that the root of salvation, in Greek and Latin, means “healing.” That’s what God is about, on every level we can imagine (and more).

While all this was going on, Chris the urban planner was teaching geography to the 5th and 6th grade students. His lesson was about aerial photography and mapping, and he brought the kids aerial maps of their school and community, as well as toy planes to illustrate what he meant by “airplane.” Then Chris took the classes on a walk to find points marked on the maps. The amazing thing to me wasn’t just that they understood what he was talking about (for the most part), but that they were not blown away by the concepts of airplanes or aerial photography. You never know what people here will already know about. After all, the entire country is connected by cell phones, which get reception even in a place as remote as Maniche....

We also had our parent meeting today, with about 100 parents showing up after we made the invitation at a grand total of 12 houses. Kathy talked about hygiene practices for cholera prevention, the need for parents to support their kids’ educations by encouraging them to do their homework, and the need for parents to volunteer as “disciplinarians” at Saturday study sessions offered by the headmaster. Several parents said they were interested, and she got one man to coordinate volunteers. It’s not exactly the PTA, but it’s an idea whose time may have come here.

In our theological reflection tonight, we talked about God’s mission in the world and the remarkable truth that we are participants in it when we allow ourselves to be sent on missional assignments (like going to work or the club, as well as going to Haiti). That’s a hard truth to accept because it can smack of arrogance: “Who am I to be doing God’s work in the world, and what if I’m imperfect in executing it?” And hearing that response, God smiles and says, “Perfection is never the goal. If I’d valued that most, I’d never have given you free will. The goal is faithfulness, and nothing more. The rest you can leave to me.”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Haiti Trip, Day 4

Nov. 14, 2010, 9:01 p.m.

It’s the end of a long and wonderful Sunday, and it feels like it’s about midnight. That’s what we get from waking up at 4 a.m. thanks to the alarm-clock fan in the room Chris and I are sharing. Night before last, it decided to buzz loudly at 3 a.m.; last night, it waited an extra hour. Tonight, we have a new fan. We’ll see what it decides to do.

The morning began with church at St. Saveur parish in Cayes. Initially, there was a chance that Pere Colbert would ask me to do the liturgy in French (a frightening but nearly plausible thought), but instead he asked another priest to preside while I preached, with the other priest translating. What’s striking about church in Haiti (apart from a congregation actually filling the church at 7 a.m.) is the great joy in the midst of what seem to us such Spartan surroundings. To our eyes, the churches in both Cayes and Maniche would seem to be dingy, concrete caves with a few streamers here and there and literally no lighting other than what comes in through the open doors and windows. Yet the people manage to transform their worship spaces into the heavenly throne room, with full-voiced worshippers lustily praising God for salvation we can only begin to imagine. The liturgy follows the Book of Common Prayer just as ours does, complete with the same lectionary as we use; so our experience wasn’t so different from that of the congregation at St. Andrew’s this morning ... except that it was a world away.

The sermon seemed to be well-received, especially at Maniche, where the congregation offered its share of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” –- again, something a bit outside my experience in the Episcopal Church. The gospel reading was from Luke, where Jesus warns the disciples of immediate threats along the way toward the coming of the kingdom – wars and insurrections, famine, diseases, dreadful signs from heaven, and earthquakes. It sounds like an update on Haiti from CNN. I told them that we stand with them in their suffering and that we have great respect for their remarkable ability to look with faith toward the coming of the Kingdom even in such dire circumstances. I also used the Isaiah reading (65:17-25) to frame the work of our school in terms of taking part with God in bringing forth new creation, “new heavens and a new earth” even in the here and now. This is at least one reason why it matters for missionaries like us to show up here: It’s a wonderful thing to send money, but it’s so much more to accompany that support with the solidarity of presence.

After church, we came back to Hosanna House for lunch -– a Sunday feast including roast chicken in a wonderful spicy sauce, beans and rice, a hot potato and beet salad, avocados, bread, and a cold pasta salad with onions. From there, despite the temptation to take a nap, we took off for a trip to the beach at Port-Salut. Getting to the beach was a bit of a challenge because of the political rally in the streets of Port-Salut. It’s presidential-election time in Haiti, and there are 19 candidates, which results in an amazing collection of election posters plastered everywhere, including on road signs. In Port-Salut today, supporters of one candidate clogged the streets (and made us a bit nervous, especially with the presence of armed UN troops), but at least they didn’t overtake the beach. So we relaxed, enjoyed the water, and noted how the hurricane last week had changed the shape and texture of the beach from what we remembered from previous visits. Then we prayed Compline as the sun was setting and feasted on lobster cooked over a fire. It wasn’t Eucharist, but it certainly was eucharistic -– friends in Christ gathered around God’s table, offering a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the bounty we received.

We drive the 45 minutes or so back into Cayes in the dark –- just in case daytime driving on a highway with no regulations and many pedestrians and cyclists isn’t thrilling enough. Once we reached Cayes, we were traveling slowly in city traffic, with cyclists all around, only feet away from the truck; and Chris, Bruce, and I were in the back. As we moved along, I heard someone shouting out from a motorcycle just behind us. I began to get concerned. Here we were, three blans in the back of a pickup, almost certain to be carrying cash and unarmed. We all ignored the shouting, hoping the driver would put some distance between us and the cyclist, but it continued. Then I thought I heard the man saying, “Father, Father!” I figured there was no way he could be calling to me. Not only was I a stranger here, but I hardly looked clerical, dressed in a swimming suit and a t-shirt from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But the shouting continued –- “Father, Father!” Then the man pulled up alongside us, looked over at me, and called out, “Good message today at the Episcopal Church!” I’ve never had a compliment on a sermon quite like that.

May we have eyes to see and ears to hear the potential blessings swirling around us in the chaos of our lives, and the strength to look past our fears to find them.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Haiti Trip, Day 3 -- Nov. 13, 2010

8:22 p.m.

We’ve had a long and full day, and we have to be alert for a 7 a.m. service tomorrow (the first of two at which I’m preaching), so I’ll try to make this relatively short.

We arrived in Maniche this morning with considerably less trouble than yesterday, and without having to take the hour-long detour to find a river crossing. Our intrepid driver, Jean-Marie, took the Hosanna house truck underwater up to the door handles, but he pulled us through to the other side. Praise God, literally.

This being Saturday, there was no school in Maniche. So we used our time on things we couldn’t have done while the kids were in classes. One of the plans was to continue the “field day” activities from yesterday, to the degree we had any takers show up. When we got there, only a few kids were around. So Bruce continued with his second construction project, the swing set –- which he finished today, too. Kathy and Vanessa painted little girls’ fingernails, and Chris supervised a game of soccer, much more organized than the bedlam from yesterday. I shot photos and hung around with the kids.

Once the customers for the nail boutique ran dry and the kids had played quite a bit of soccer, we took off with a group of students to have them take us to their homes. We walked through the countryside around Maniche for about an hour and a half, stopping at the homes of maybe a dozen students. At each one, through our interpreters, we explained who we were, said thank-you for sending your child to the school, invited them to a parent-teacher meeting on Monday, and found out which kids lived in that home. (Chris also mapped each child’s home using a GPS and recorded which kids lived where.) Then I prayed with each family and blessed their homes. It’s a wonderful illustration of the thin place between heaven and earth that Haiti is. Here there’s very little sense of separation between the secular and the sacred, and the notion that a wandering stranger would stop and bless your home really isn’t odd at all here.

I need to share a story from this walkabout. Several of the kids who led us around adopted an adult as a special friend, and I ended up with two little girls who insisted on holding my hands the entire time we tromped around through the rocks and mud. They were darling, apart from the scabies; and they really seemed to enjoy the time with these strange blans who had come to call. Along the way, we crossed a creek on stepping stones, which the kids would have had absolutely no problem navigating. I was a little hesitant about this, not having crossed a creek in a long time. But one of my little companions, dressed in an enormously long Hannah Montana t-shirt acting as a dress, insisted on walking through the creek next to me, holding my hand. Along the way (surprise, surprise), I slipped on a wet rock and pitched toward her a bit. She held her ground in the mud, holding me up and righting me back on the rock so I could continue with dry feet. I was reminded of the story of Christ calling to Peter to walk on the sea to meet him. When Peter began to doubt and began slipping into the sea, it was Jesus’ hand that kept him up. And so it was with me today.

Once we got back to the school, Vanessa had done an incredible job of organizing the kids there (now probably 40 or so) into two groups in two classrooms, getting them ready to paint with watercolors. The kids at Maniche have no art whatsoever in their curriculum, so we wanted to give them an experience they wouldn’t normally get. Vanessa had all the materials out and was giving the kids instructions in French about how to do this activity they had never seen before. The results were incredible –- many simply beautiful paintings, as varied as the kids themselves. Then, to top off this experience, we have this story: Bruce was in the church, measuring the benches so he could build desks to fit with some of them in the classrooms. One of the students came into the church with his watercolor, which Bruce appropriately admired and praised. The boy then went to the back of the church, took the top off the baptismal font, and placed his painting in the empty font, an offering for God and for the church. We are all called to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God, and this boy completely gets it. Thanks be to God, and may we all offer ourselves so beautifully.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Haiti Trip, Days 1 and 2

Just got internet access, so here are the first two days of St. Andrew's mission trip to Haiti, 2010.

Nov. 11, 9:33 p.m.

We were up at 4 a.m. for a 6:50 flight this morning. That gave most of us five to six hours of sleep, but not Kathy Shaffer, who came in on the 11 p.m. plane and didn’t get to the hotel until 12:30 a.m. All were in good spirits, though, and we had very little drama in making the flight or getting to Port-au-Prince.

My greatest shock initially was simply getting off the airplane –- on a jetway, which I’ve never seen in Haiti before. The jetway led to an air-conditioned hallway, which led to a shuttle bus to customs and baggage claim, all new since the earthquake. Meanwhile, behind the new walkway sits the original terminal building, clearly damaged by the earthquake. However, the building isn’t badly damaged enough to be abandoned. In fact, the government now is housed there. It’s a perfectly Haitian solution to the problem: Use what you have, and improvise.

After customs, we met Zo, our driver, but we had to wait an hour in the parking lot for his assistant to return with the van, which the assistant had “borrowed” to earn another fare while he was supposedly waiting for us. It wasn’t that bad an idea, except for the reality of extraordinary post-earthquake traffic jams. Hence our one-hour wait.

To get from the airport and on the way to Cayes, you have to drive through Port-au-Prince. It was fascinating, as always. Most noticeable was the fact that there was less visible destruction than I’d imagined (or been led to believe by the media). Much of the rubble has been cleared, and some rebuilding is underway. It’s not the case that the city is leveled, but the reports we’ve heard of tent cities are absolutely not exaggerated. In virtually every open space (and many not-very-open spaces), there are tents, which have obviously been up since the earthquake, given their condition at this point. Next to the tent cities are a smattering of port-a-potties, but they’re clearly insufficient for the demand.

They will be even more insufficient soon, as cholera makes its way particularly through the slums and tent cities. The fears are great that deaths could be at the same levels as the earthquake – a quarter million people or so, over a few years. Once cholera is present in a situation like this, it won’t be eradicated or even dealt with quickly. It’s a frightening thought, on several levels.

Although many buildings remain standing, the icons of Port-au-Prince are gone. The presidential palace looks just as it did the day it collapsed, like a fallen wedding cake. The Roman Catholic Cathedral stands with exterior walls only, roof and interior destroyed. And Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral looks like the ruins of abbeys in rural England from centuries ago – only a few pieces of wall here and there remain. I took a piece of the floor tile as a keepsake, and I nearly cried. This was an artistic treasure, as well as a physical proclamation of the presence of the Kingdom even in the midst of extreme poverty, overcrowding, and disease. That reality is still true, of course; for God, too, suffers with the people of Haiti in the destruction of His house.

As we left Port-au-Prince, we began the drive on the one highway connecting the capital with the southwest of the country. In spots, the road is gravel and rocks, as it detours through rivers now spanned by unsafe or visibly cracked bridges. But most of the road is well-paved. That sounds like a good thing, but ... when you combine it with a total absence of traffic regulations and a driver who was born to race, and you have what became both the highlight and the lowlight of the day. It was alternately described as “a five-hour LeMans race,” “driving as an extreme sport,” and “a ride at Disneyland that you can’t get off.” We laughed more than I’ve laughed in weeks, I think. Thankfully, and literally miraculously, we also didn’t hit any of the hundreds of people we flew by, a few inches away along the sides of the road.

Once we made it to Cayes, we went to Pere Colbert’s rectory for dinner and an extended conversation about how to improve student learning at the school in Maniche. Because of cultural norms that see rural “peasants” as uneducable and unworthy of the effort to teach them, our educational enterprise in the mountains has a lot working against it. It’s very hard to find good teachers willing to go up to Maniche five days a week, and it’s hard to incentivize them to improve student learning. But that’s the work: Increase the number of kids who matriculate and eventually pass national exams at the end of sixth grade –- exams that determine whether the child will be a candidate for further learning and, thereby, socioeconomic progress. It’s a tall order in the face of cultural expectations and the reality of nearly complete illiteracy among the parents.

Before turning in, I have one interesting note for the people of St. Andrew’s, who are in the midst of an effort to raise funds to rebuild, restore, and renew our church building. At St. Saveur parish in Cayes, Pere Colbert’s flagship congregation, they, too, are raising money -– their goal is to expand their worship space. On the first Sunday of the month, they are asked to give toward this effort. Last week, the congregation gave between 12,000 and 13,000 Haitian goudes -– the equivalent of about $300 –- toward that goal. This happened in a place where the average income is $1 to $2 per day. I think they have a pretty good handle on the notion of giving back to God in joy and thanksgiving for what they’ve received.

Nov. 12, 2010, 4:58 p.m.

We’re back from a very Haitian day, with all its positives and negatives.

We left Hosanna House at 7 a.m., after negotiating last night with the innkeeper, Franchette, to arrange for a lunch packed early in exchange for her not having to prepare a breakfast other than bananas, bread, and peanut butter. The lunch was very typical –- hot dogs and onions, which had been boiled this morning and then kept in a “cold” chest; buns; crackers; and incredibly sweet fruit drink. Augmented by a protein bar, it made for a filling lunch, at least. And it was absolutely the envy of the kids at the school, despite the fact they had had their own lunch of rice and beans, with a little ham thrown in. That’s a very nutritious lunch, but it’s also what they have basically every day. Hot dogs must have seemed like Kansas City strips.

Back to the travelogue. On the way out of Cayes, we stopped at a building supply store –- the Haitian equivalent of Home Depot –- to get lumber for Bruce Bower’s playground projects. We’re building a teeter-totter and a small swing set for the school (or, more accurately, Bruce is), and that implies taking the equipment to the worksite. We left “Home Depot” with 14 2x4’s in the only length they had, 16 feet. Securing these in a short-bed pick-up was interesting enough, but it was greatly complicated by the terrain we traversed up the mountain to Maniche. To say we took “roads” is a little deceptive. None of it is paved; very little of it is graded; much of it is at dramatic angles up and down; and nearly all of it is made up of large, loose stones which pass for pavement. It’s like driving at 45-degree angles on a rough riverbed. It also included several actual riverbeds, complete with rivers. One of these was expected –- we always cross a river just before arriving at the school. But with the recent hurricane, the rivers are swollen; so the local experts felt we should take a detour to find a more shallow crossing. This added an hour to what’s usually an hour-long drive – but it was even this time because of the numerous stops to re-secure the 16-foot lumber sliding off the back of the truck. Anyway, we got to Maniche about 11 a.m.

Once there, we spent much of the time reconnecting with the teachers, Jude the “disciplinarian,” and Samuel the headmaster, while Bruce did his construction project. Our conversations culminated in a meeting with the teachers, in which Kathy Shaffer and I talked with them about what they think the school and the students need. Not surprisingly, more funding for salaries was near the top of the list (the teachers make about $100 a month, which is at least twice the per-capita income). But they also were concerned about other issues that would resonate with a teacher in the States: the pressure to improve student achievement, the need for parents to be more involved in their children’s education, and the health and well-being of their students. For the teachers in Maniche, the immediate health-related issue is the need to prevent the spread of cholera. We will raise all these issues in a meeting of parents and teachers we’ll host on Monday. We’re fortunate to have Kathy (a physician) here to provide expert advice on limiting the spread of cholera. It takes clean water, which is difficult enough to come by; but it also takes cultural change -– paying attention to hand-washing, especially after toileting and before food preparation. Things probably will get very ugly in Haiti before they get better.

While our meeting and Bruce’s building project were going on, Chris Nazar and Vanessa Jefferson interacted with the kids after school let out. I would say they “played” with the kids, but I think (based on Chris’ story) it turned more into doing wardens’ work in crowd control. We brought soccer balls, volleyballs, and equipment for games like ring toss, bean-bag toss, etc. Taking turns wasn’t exactly on the kids’ minds, so our “field day” turned into trying not to lose the equipment in its first use. Ah, well. Nothing is exactly as one might expect, and everything is an education. Welcome to Haiti.

After dinner of pumpkin soup (a Haitian favorite) and bread, our group gathered for theological reflection and Compline. It’s just about my favorite part of the experience here. Everything you see here is fodder for considering where God might be in it or what God might have to say about it. Our conversation ranged from educational practice, to denominationalism, to Voodoo, to how Haitians understand the question of theodicy -– how God can allow bad things to happen to good people. The answer to the last is especially worth sharing. They seem to have the spiritual gift of patience, even to a fault. The good side of this is that extreme patience is mandatory to live in this context without either going mad or turning on God; the shadow side is that it fosters an attitude of complacency and fatalism. But the best element of Haitian theodicy is its embrace of deep mystery: The Haitians manage to see God as the absolute provider of all things, giving us everything we have and (at least nearly) enough of it; and they’re authentically thankful for what they receive, praising God often and out loud. At the same time, the see their suffering as somehow within the will of a good and loving God, a deity they perceive as being actively involved in every element of life and in all creation. They simply don’t have trouble reconciling a reality that we analytic, scientific-minded Northerners can’t begin to wrap our hearts and minds around.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Drive-Thru Blessings

As we come to another Friday, maybe you’re feeling that you haven’t really made much of a difference this week. Get up, get to work, take care of things at home, rest a little … then get up and do it all over again.

A friend shared a story with me this week. It offers a little hope that, in the midst of the daily grind, we might suddenly find ourselves in the position of being an instrument of blessing. And in the most surprising places.

She had been a regular customer at a particular drive-thru for a while, and she frequently found herself being served by a man many people might have written off. He wasn’t terribly attractive, and he had difficulty making himself understood because of a speech impediment. Still, she would talk with him when she went through the drive-thru, and it seemed to brighten his day.

One day, she asked the usual, “How are you?”; and the man shared some trouble he was facing. She stayed at the window longer than normal, actually listening. And at the end, she offered, “I’m so sorry to hear all that. I’ll be sure to pray for you.”

“Really?” the man replied, taken aback. “You’d really pray for me?” He couldn’t imagine someone would have said such a thing to him.

The next time my friend went through the drive-thru, she greeted the man as usual, and they had their regular conversation. Then he asked, “Are you still … you know … I mean … for me?”

“Absolutely I’m still praying for you,” she said, with a smile. “And I’ll be happy to keep it up.” It made his day.

I have no idea what happened in that man’s life, as far as his difficult issue is concerned. I have no miraculous story to tell of healing that sprang from my friend’s prayer. But I can say, with certainty, that her willingness simply to say “I’ll pray for you” made all the difference for someone in pain.

And, by the way, it made her week really mean something.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Church Rocket Science

Sunday was “Blast-Off Sunday” at St. Andrew’s –- the beginning of Sunday school, which the kids marked by going outside and firing little foam-rubber rockets into the air. This is always an important day, but it was something to celebrate this year because of the way Sunday school is changing for us.

For many years, we offered Sunday school during the first part of the 10:15 (“family”) service. Not anymore. Now Sunday school is happening between the two services, starting at 9:15 a.m. And the reason why is a great reminder of who we are as Episcopalians.

We made this change so our kids could experience worship regularly. As Episcopalians, liturgy using the Book of Common Prayer is a huge part of our identity. Other denominations may focus on reading the Bible, or channeling the activity of the Holy Spirit, or hearing long sermons, or singing praise music, or whatever. For us, the focus is liturgy – worshipping God through common prayer, as Anglicans have been doing for centuries. When we had Sunday school during the first part of the liturgy, it taught an unintentional but still unhealthy lesson: “Worship is for older people, not for kids.” In the moment on any given Sunday, I can imagine both kids and parents being happier with that arrangement (I certainly remember being dragged to church when I didn’t want to be there.) But the problem is, the kids eventually grow up without any place for worship in their heads or in their hearts. So, we discerned that we should be forming our kids to know and to love worship, rather than teaching them that worship is something older people do.

So, to make that a reality, we’re now giving kids their own worship time every Sunday. After Sunday school, they gather for Children’s Chapel, complete with Bible readings, and a kids’ sermon, and fun music, and their own prayers, and a little altar, and candles, and everything. Then they join their parents in the church before Communion, so families can receive the presence of Christ together.

Most churches have been doing this kind of thing for years, so we’re not exactly pushing the envelope here. But for St. Andrew’s to catch this wave (again) is a grand thing. And so, after the kids shot off their rockets in the churchyard, the clergy shot of rockets, too – in the church, during the announcements. The fact that Episcopal kids need to worship may not be ecclesiological rocket science, but it is a change to celebrate.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Moments of transfiguration

August 7, 2010

I’m sorry for the long absence. I hope and pray to make the space consistently for this again. That’s certainly something easier hoped and prayed for than done, but I’ll give it my best.

Ann and I have been at a lake for the past couple of days, celebrating her birthday and our anniversary. One of the best things about that experience has been sitting on a screened porch overlooking a cove of the lake, shielded by the trees. It’s been a lovely opportunity simply to sit, without checking e-mail, and listen -– to the birds, to the breeze, to God. And every now and then, when one does such a countercultural thing, one is blessed with visions.

This morning, I was sitting there alone before Ann woke up, praying. At other moments in the past few days, depending on the sun and the wind, the water has appeared still and dark and flat, a quiet companion but, frankly, of little interest. This morning, everything changed. A breeze came up, moving the water in a gentle current; the sun was at just the right angle from my eyes. And the result was transfiguration. The water flashed and shimmered as if electrified, glittering with divine energy. It was the same cove, of course -– but it wasn’t.

Yesterday was the feast of the Transfiguration, which recalls Jesus’ appearance with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. The disciples with him reported that, for a brief moment, everything about him changed –- that he shone in dazzling light, revealing the fullness of divinity they had only glimpsed in words and signs before.

At least part of the message of that revelation is that God continues to share with us flashes of divinity. What usually looks to us still and flat and mundane can become transfigured before our eyes, even now. Take God’s good creation, and add incarnation, and mix it with the breath of the Holy Spirit, and you never know what you might be blessed to see -– or who you might be blessed to become.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Finally Back

I apologize for being silent for so long. There's simply been too much to attend to, on all kinds of levels. Here's a Holy Week offering -- may your journey this week lead you into unexpected conversations with God.

Question Time

Imagine God comes down to sit with you,
To share a coffee, or a glass of wine;
And then, our sovereign Lord offers a gift:
“It’s question time,” God tells you. “Ask away.”

Without the time for much deep thought, I’d say
The thing that seems forever on my mind:
“So just what do you want from us? It seems
I always strain to hear your voice. And when
The question’s hardest, all I get are soft
Whispers of love. Give me a key that I
Can turn inside confusing locks – and live.”

God smiles and takes a sip and says, “Think back.
It took a flood to cleanse the world of sin.
It took a wilderness of death to bring
Israel into the promised land. It took
An exile, generations long, before
People could turn their hearts to me and live.
It took a cross to show the path of life.
Do not fear death, but give yourself away,
For sometimes choosing death is how you plant
The seed that springs into full bloom next day.”

I know you’re right, my Lord, but still I wait
And hope you’ll show another, softer road.
Instead, you finish up your drink and move
Along. A cross was not the thing I had
In mind when we sat down. But love requires
Us both to die so that we both may live.